What to Say Instead of Punishing to Teach a Lesson

Verbal "lessons" will never teach our children as much as what we actually do.

Posted Jun 11, 2014

"Dr. Laura.....I know I need to do a better job with preventive maintenance like spending time with my son, but I still don't know what to say to teach him a lesson when he misbehaves. You can't prevent all misbehavior, can you? So you still need to teach them a lesson somehow, right?"

Staying connected with kids and helping them with their big emotions does prevent lots of "misbehavior." But kids will always need our guidance. They come into the world ready to learn, and they look to us to teach them. Red and blue, right and wrong, what to do when they get angry, how to express their needs and feelings.

We teach so many lessons, and often without even noticing that we're teaching! Because those verbal "lessons" will never teach our children as much as what we actually do. Do we yell (i.e., have tantrums) when we get angry? So will they. Or do we notice when we're getting irritated and say "I'm feeling grumpy....I'm going to take a minute to chill out and get calm...I will be right back..."? They'll learn to do that, too.

So when kids "misbehave" the real lesson isn't what you say. It's that you:

  • Calm yourself, which teaches your child how to calm herself.
  • Reconnect.
  • Help your child with emotions, even as you set limits.

But if you weren't brought up with positive parenting, this can sometimes seem impossible, and you're probably still wondering "what to say" to guide behavior in a positive way. Here's a basic guide to get you started.

1. Set appropriate limits.

"Teaching a lesson" means stating firmly what your limit or expectation is, and redirecting your child. When we're frustrated, we feel like screaming at our kids to stop giving us a hard time. But they're acting out like this because they're having a hard time, and they learn limits by our repeating them over and over. When we "lose" our tempers, it plunges the child into a state of emergency. Unfortunately, that causes learning to shut down. Instead, take a deep breath, and try to redirect your child's impulse into acceptable behavior:

 "Blocks are not for throwing....You can throw your stuffed animals, or you can go outside and throw balls."

"You know that we aren't buying a toy for you today.....I know that's hard...If it's too hard for you, we'll need to leave the store and try again to buy your cousin's present next week."

"Aidan, your sister loves you, AND she needs to decide about being hugged. Can you ask before you hug her?"

"The rule is no screaming in the car so I can drive safely. I hear you're mad, and you can tell me in words. Can you stop screaming, or do I need to stop the car?"

 2. Acknowledge feelings.

Kids need to feel understood before they can hear your teaching. You may feel like yelling "I told you to stop playing and get upstairs to the bathtub! How many times do I have to tell you?!" but that teaches your child that you aren't serious until you raise your voice, and it doesn't give him any incentive to cooperate. 

Instead, acknowledge his perspective, and give him his wish in fantasy: "I hear you, you don't want to take a bath....It's so hard to stop playing...I bet when you grow up, you'll never stop playing, you'll play all night every night, won't you?! You'll probably never ever go to bed! Here, let's fly that airplane up to the bathtub."

Your child learns that you mean what you say and will insist on his cooperation, but that you understand if he doesn't like it. He doesn't always get what he wants, but he gets something better -- someone who understands, no matter what.

3. Emotion Coach

When humans are in the grip of big feelings, learning shuts down. Help your child with emotions before you try to teach. Most of us feel like saying "Go to your room until you can speak to me in a civil tone, young lady!" but that just teaches kids that they're all alone trying to manage those big, scary emotions.

Instead, try: "Ouch! You know we speak to each other respectfully in this family. You must be so upset to speak to me like that. What's going on, Sweetie?"

You've pointed out that your child said something hurtful to you, but your main goal is not to "teach a lesson" but to create safety, so your child can process emotion. She learns that feelings aren't scary and dangerous, and we always have a choice about how we act on them. She also learns that her words have the power to hurt, and she doesn't want to do that. Finally, she learns that even when she's upset, you understand that she's good inside; she's just having a hard time right now--and that you're there to help. 

4. Empower to Repair

 Children want to know how to make things better when they mess up. Not while they're mad, of course. No one does. But when they're no longer angry, they want a chance to redeem themselves, to restore their good feelings about themselves and their relationships. Don't we all? 

Most of us think we're supposed to say "You go apologize to your brother this minute!" but that's humiliating and makes kids resist mending the relationship.

Instead, help your child with the emotions that caused her to lash out. Then, once your child has regained her equilibrium, empower her to make things better:

 "Your brother was pretty upset when you knocked down his tower....I wonder what you could do to make things better with him?...What a great idea!"

If she says, "I never want to make things better with him! I hate him!" then she's still too angry, and needs your help with her emotions. Go back to acknowledging her feelings and helping her work through her upset:

"You're still pretty mad at your brother....Right now, it's hard to remember that sometimes you feel good about him, and that you could get back to that good place...It sounds like maybe you have something you need to tell your brother....want some help to do that?"

Once she's on the road to feeling calmer, try again. If she still resists, leave the repair up to her: "I know you're still feeling upset at your brother, and I understand why...I know when you feel better, you'll think of the perfect way to reconnect with him and make things better."

You'll be amazed that your child will actually try to make reparations, once she doesn't feel pushed into it. She learns that when we damage a relationship, there's a cost -- and that she can take responsibility to clean up her messes.

5. Help your child reflect.

Teaching your child the important lessons in life takes a whole lot of listening as well as talking, but lectures don't work. Teachable moments are only teachable if the student is ready to learn. So practice sharing your observations and "wondering aloud" to help your child reflect on why she's acting as she is, and also on the results of her actions.

"I notice your brother doesn't want to wrestle with you these days....I wonder whether there's anything you can do to help him feel safe and have fun?"

"I know you're using that tone of voice because you're worried we'll be late to the birthday party, Sweetie...but I get anxious when I hear shouting, and I can't drive safely...I wonder if there's another way to let me know how worried you are?" 

"It's disappointing to miss words on your spelling test, I know....The good news is that your brain is like a muscle, and if you exercise it, you can learn anything and get smarter. Want me to help you learn your words for next week?"

Remember, if your child is "misbehaving" because he doesn't know the appropriate behavior, then simply teaching him is sufficient. But if he knows the right behavior and is still "misbehaving," it's a cry for help. That's why calming yourself, re-connecting with your child, and helping with emotions WHILE you set limits will teach the most important lessons.

If those are your goals, you'll find that you know just what to say.